Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sins of a Solar Empire Preview

Sins of a Solar Empire (Preview), developed by Ironclad Games and published by Stardock Entertainment.
The Good So Far: Little micromanagement due to high amount of smart automation, outstanding intuitive interface, enjoyable 4X real-time gameplay
The Not So Good So Far: Slow pace and long travel times, research trees could be clearer

The 4X strategy game is quite a popular genre, especially ones set in space. From Lost Empire to Galactic Civilizations II to Space Empires V to (deep breath) Starships Unlimited to Sword of the Stars, the list is getting so long that it's limiting the things I can say in the introduction (other than the list I am repeating). Produced by the same people behind Galactic Civilizations II (the best game in the genre) comes Sins of a Solar Empire, a 4X game that sets itself apart with real-time gameplay. That’s right: no more turn-based nonsense! Through an incident involving a llama, two sticks of dynamite, and former President Clinton (don’t get me started), I got my hands on a preview build of the game, which is due for release in February 2008. If you are reading this in February 2008 (probably because I referenced the preview in my review), how is it in the future? Has Paris Hilton doomed humanity yet? Oh, maybe that was February 2009; Nostradamus can be a year or two off. In the meantime, please enjoy this preview!

Sins of a Solar Empire has a nice graphics engine that shows detail all the way up close back to the entire universe you are playing in. This is a lot like Supreme Commander, where the game map and the mini-map are one in the same. Sins of a Solar Empire does a fine job showing all of the pertinent information on multiple zoom levels, including the useful, albeit initially confusing, empire menu that shows all of your ships and structures as blips next to your planets. This preview build only contained one playable race, so the variety of ship designs is not evident yet. Overall, Sins of a Solar Empire seems to be a good looking space game, as the environment lends itself to visual splendor. The sounds also appear to be on track, with some genre-appropriate background music and good effects for the various combat operations on-going in your game world. We’ll see what Sins of a Solar Empire looks and sounds like with four more months of tweaking.

Sins of a Solar Empire is a classic 4X strategy game, where you establish your colonies, build a fleet, and go blow stuff up. The innovation is playing the game in real-time, and I am not sure if this is a good thing. The game goes by very slowly in the beginning while you are expanding your empire; this is normally the time where you would keep hitting the “next turn” button, but in Sins of a Solar Empire you just have to wait. The game features single player skirmishes on a handful of pre-designed and random maps, a tutorial that teacher some (but not all) of the game’s mechanics, and multiplayer over LAN or Ironclad’s matchmaking service. The multiplayer aspects of the game seem to be working fine so far.

The economy of Sins of a Solar Empire is based off of collecting credits (from taxes), metal (from mining), and crystal (from more mining). The game displays a per planet rate of resource collection, useful in determining your most important economic strongholds. The usually excellent user interface does a good job in giving the player useful information in sizable bites: controlling a large empire scattered over several star systems can be difficult, but the sorted reports, zoomed views, and empire menu help immensely. Your resources will be spent upgrading planets, building things, conducting research, and raising defenses. Each of your planets can be developed in five areas: civics (increasing the population and therefore the taxed credit income), logistics (more buildings), tactical (more defenses), and your fleet and capital ship caps. There are a number of structures that can be built in orbit around each planet: metal and crystal collection facilities, factories for ships, labs for research, trade ports and refineries for additional funds, and broadcast centers for culture. Defensive buildings consist of the typical gun platforms, plus repair vessels and shields. If you don’t want to manually place all of these structures, you can have the game auto-place them. There is a good selection of buildings available; they cover the range of possibilities without being overkill.

A portion of your economy will be devoted towards building ships. There are three classes: small frigates, medium-sized cruisers, and huge capital ships. The ships will automatically engage enemies in their planet’s range (unless told to hold fire) and usually don’t require much micromanagement. Thankfully, the special abilities available to each ship can be auto-used by the AI, reducing the tedium even further. Your largest ship, the capital, can level-up, increasing the success of its special abilities. There are some alternatives to fighting, such as negotiating cease fire, intelligence, trade alliances with the other empires. There is also a three-part research tree (military, civilian, and artifact) that could be a lot clearer. It’s hard to make out the icons and difficult to see which grant new ships or are required for certain structures. It would be nice if they build menus were somehow tied into the research trees, showing where the requirements for building a trade port are actually located on the convoluted display.

As far as the gameplay goes, the AI is not terribly aggressive and seems to send out only one large force to begin with. This makes it easy to colonize perimeter planets, as long as you get lucky and don’t run into the large enemy fleet. The game mechanics are interesting, as there are several paths you can choose since your resources are quite limited. You can focus on colonization, research, military, cultural, or diplomatic exploits, and each has an advantage. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing World in Conflict, but I found Sins of a Solar Empire painfully slow. The ships move slow, colonization is slow, and the beginning of the game takes 30 minutes just to get a decent sized empire going. I don’t really see how this would work very well in multiplayer, unless players have an extremely high amount of spare time. The movement times are agonizingly realistic (a problem also seen in 3030 Deathwar) and it takes forever just to move a couple of ships to a new planet. Since a lot of the game is automated (which is a good thing), you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the credits to add up or for a ship to move. Granted, Sins of a Solar Empire still has four more months of development left, so things could improve in the future, but right now I found the pace to be very slow.

Sins of a Solar Empire, for the most part, looks good so far. The game has a nice foundation of 4X gameplay with great graphics and promising multiplayer capabilities. The user interface is great and helps you control a large empire with ease. I really like the amount of automation present in the game, removing a lot of the monotony associated with this genre. The pace is slow, but hopefully the game will all come together with four more months of work. We’ll find out then!